Syrian rebels tout a fighting force the US can work with

The Syrian opposition says it finally has a rebel group that rejects extremism, welcomes a diplomatic solution, and can win a fight. Now, where are its weapons?

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    A Syrian rebel looks at one of the frontlines of Yabroud town, the last rebel stronghold in Syria's mountainous Qalamoun region, March 14. Syria’s uprising, which began with largely peace protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones.
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Today Syrian opposition leaders pleaded with the Arab League to pressure the international community to provide “sophisticated weapons” that could help them match those of the regime forces – a request it has been making for years now, to little effect. One reason is the blurred line between Syrian rebel groups and foreign extremist groups, including Al Qaeda allies.

But with little fanfare, four representatives of armed opposition groups were on the sidelines at the failed Syria peace conference in Geneva last month. These groups hope to prove their value as anti-regime fighters that the US can stomach arming.

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The representatives all came from the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a collection of local armed groups who have been battling both the regime and foreign extremist forces. Formed in late 2013, the SRF now serves as the main military arm of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the Western-backed opposition front. The goal is to prove that the Syrian opposition has a competent fighting force that is – and this is the key word here – moderate.

The US has challenged the SNC to prove that it is coordinating with armed groups, says Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American who is a senior adviser to the SNC. He insists that such coordination is taking place, and that the SRF supports a diplomatic solution to the conflict, unlike extremist groups that reject the UN-brokered talks. 

To bolster its credentials, the coalition touts recent fighting between the SRF and Al Qaeda-linked groups, exactly the kind of fighters that the West fears may profit from possible arms deliveries. Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's recognized affiliate in Syria, declared in a video broadcast on YouTube that SRF leader Jamal Marouf was its enemy. 

“Jamal Marouf is No. 1 on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s hit list,” says Shahbandar, referring to the leader of Al Qaeda’s central command. 

He also points to the recent trip by SNC leader Ahmed Jarba and Mr. Marouf to Idlib Province, where the SRF has been battling extremist groups, as proof of their cooperation and of their shared rejection of extremism. Most other militant groups have outright rejected the SNC.

The opposition's pitch may be working: A March 14 letter from US senators asked the White House to “reexamine” American policy in Syria. Nine members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, including Democratic chairman Robert Menendez and Republican ranking member Bob Corker, wrote: 

The situation and our options may have grown more complicated, but we believe there is still strong, bipartisan support… [for a strategy] that will break the stalemate on the ground.

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We must be prepared with options to increase pressure when Assad fails to meet his commitments.

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The moderate opposition forces are currently the only entity actively fighting extremist groups pouring into Syria. Enhanced support to those forces engaged in the fight is needed to sustain their momentum and prevent the establishment of terrorist safe havens throughout north Syria.

So far, US assistance to the Syrian opposition has consisted of nonlethal aid, such as vehicles, blankets, and medical supplies. Other assistance has been approved, but it got blocked by fears that it would end up in the hands of extremists, who have dominated the anti-regime ranks. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has also covertly vetted, trained, and equipped a small number of rebels, as Foreign Policy noted. Meanwhile, the Gulf states have provided substantial military support to extremist groups, leaving the moderate groups vastly outgunned and struggling to rally support among Syrians. 

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the White House remains unconvinced by the SRF. “There’s a lot of skepticism,” he says. “They feel uncomfortable with them.”

The challenge for SRF, as a moderate group, is twofold: to tack away from extremism and to demonstrate itself to be an effective fighting force. But up to now, extremists have been the most effective fighting forces in Syria, Mr. Tabler says, and many moderate groups maintain ties to them. 

Shahbandar insists that this description does not apply to the SNC's armed wing, which justifies expanded Western aid to bolster its fighting capability.  

“The moderate opposition forces are fighting for a Syria that is free and democratic,” he says. Extremist groups “are fighting for a distant ideology that has clearly been rejected by the Syrian people.”

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